For 10 days, the o2 was taken over by the Respect Jamaica 50 festival, hosting a huge list of acts from The Abyssinians to Benjamin Zephaniah. Over 3 nights, I managed to glimpse performances from Damian, Stephen & Julian Marley, Christopher Ellis, Wayne Marshall, Gappy Ranks, Tarrus Riley, Gyptian, Morgan Heritage, Shaggy, and a host of other support acts. The shows were for the most part not oversubscribed, with a decent mix of people, but mostly weighing in at the over 30s crowd; not surprising given the line-up and the cost of the ticket. Still, the performances were slick – from the basslines to the harmonies – and managed many a live pull-up. Here are few highlights and things to take away.
// Morgan Heritage are back //
For Morgan Heritage, this show was surely a historical moment – nearly 5 years since they graced a London stage, it coincided with the eve of Jamaican independence and Usain Bolt smashing the 100 metres yet again. Their big hits ‘Down By The River’, ‘Tell Me How Come’ and ‘Can’t Get We Out’ delivered to the sea of Jamaican flag-bearers as expected, and their new material got its first airing.
The band are thankfully back for good, but as Lukes Morgan tells me in our quick chat after the show ‘we never really broke up, just took a break to do our different solo projects and explore different things.’ Though it’s been a long time since they were on a UK stage, this show ‘topped the best, it was off the charts. With the whole celebration of the 50th and seeing Usain Bolt win, when you put that all together, everybody’s hyped’. Now they’re back they’re releasing a four track EP on VP later this month, apparently not to test the waters, but as Lukes jokes ‘just to let the people know we’re still here’. The EP is aptly titled The Return, but it’s not just about the return of the band, it goes deeper than that, into the music. ‘We sit back and we see the state of reggae and the state of the world, and it seems like the culture of how our grandparents and parents have grown up has detoriated. Roots & culture has died down. So we’re coming back.’ But in no sense is this just a roots EP, in fact it features a cover of Michael Jackson & Paul McCartney’s ‘The Girl is Mine’. From one musical family to another, Lukes sees an affinity with the Jacksons – ‘they remind us of ourselves in a way, how they grew up as kids in the music business, we’ve been doing the same thing since the 80s. And Michael Jackson is the epitome of an artist, so it was just an honour to do a tribute.’ Does he like Paul McCartney too? ‘SIR PAUL? He’s a legend too.’ Seems the record takes influence from other legends, not just pop; Lukes is surprised to have to admit the cover art takes its inspiration from Lord of the Rings.
The man behind the tracks on the EP is Shane Brown, who is now like a brother to the Morgans (as if they need another one), and also their front of house engineer on tour. ‘After these shows we’ll be back in the studio with Shane getting ready for the LP next year.’ Watch out for it!
// Reggae vs Dancehall //
While the Respect Jamaica 50 line-up read more like a Jamaica 30 line-up, filled with mostly old school acts that jump on the UK stage on a yearly basis, from Sly & Robbie to Toots & The Maytals, (most likely a decision made not just for musical reasons, but also political and visa-related), dancehall and the island’s newer sounds did get their fair share of representation, if not on the poster itself.
Though pitching reggae against dancehall isn’t pitching the old against the new, the clash between the old and the new was quite apparent throughout the shows; perhaps best symbolized by Robbo Ranx & Mandingo embarrassingly fighting over the microphone on one night. While the crowd barely stirred for Popcaan tracks during warm-up sets, it seemed that it was the dancehall acts – Shaggy (who also brought out Rayvon & Red Fox), Gappy Ranks and Damian Marley’s hyper tracks in particular – that got the crowd going to the fullest, where the mic men really won out over the smooth singers.
Morgan Heritage even dedicated a section of their set to their separation of reggae & dancehall. Peter was adamant on outlining the two as different genres: ‘reggae is reggae, and dancehall is dancehall’, before introducing the live reggae sound to the crowd (perhaps preaching to the converted), running through a quick history of reggae and shouting out the greats. Still, despite their want to separate the two, Peter introduced Gramps’ impressive efforts on the mic, announcing ‘I bet you didn’t know I could deejay’. He bet right and added another skill to the long list in the Morgan family.
// Buju Banton is still king //
While evidently I was present at three nights hosted by mainly Rasta artists, and there’s little surprise that they’re fans of Buju – they represented hard. Stephen Marley (who served as a character witness in Buju’s trial) did a pretty spot-on impression of ‘Champion’, as well as standing in on his section of ‘Jah Army’, while Tarrus Riley covered ‘I Wanna Be Loved’, and Morgan Heritage reeled Buju’s name into their reggae/dancehall play-off.
// Dancehall dynasties: the younger generation shines through //
Some of the best surprises came from the younger artists given the stage by their parents or supporters. The Marley dynasty is certainly in no trouble, Stephen’s son Jo Mersa held it down with ‘Bad So’, while reggae’s other royal family brought on Gramps’ son Jemere for a more laid-back roots vibe, and of course Alton Ellis’ son Christopher represented for the Ghetto Youths International camp. Elsewhere we saw dancehall child star QQ, Black Am I and Gyptian standing strong for the younger generation.
Despite some hiccups, some programming criticisms and a no show from Lee Perry, the 10 days were overwhelmingly positive: looking back at an incredible 50 years of music and forward to the next 50.
[Photo via Posh Yardie]